May 5, 2015

How does your national identity inform your design?

We all come from different backgrounds and operate in varied conditions based on where we live and work. How do our surroundings, country, landscape and people influence our design?
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Hálfdan Pedersen

Hálfdan Pedersen studied film directing and screenwriting in California, then returned to his native Iceland to pursue a career as production and interior designer. Among his films: “The Good Heart,“ “The Last Winter,“ and “Either Way.“

I think my national identity has less an impact on the outcome of my design as it has on the process of my design. The element that greatly differentiates the approach between our countries is the size of the field in which we play. Recourses are extremely limited in Iceland so we have become well-trained in improvising. But at the same time, distances are much shorter and therefore the objects that may be available are often only an arms reach away. So we have also become well-trained in getting a lot done in a short amount of time. We don´t rely on rentals, or large prop houses but we rely on each other. Quite often we find ourselves in basements or garages of someone we´ve never met, who, through someone‘s tip, might possess what we are looking for. If we need to build a set out of reclaimed lumber, we don´t go to a reclaimed lumber yard, we go to the countryside and tear down an old barn. By working in Iceland's often harsh and extreme weather conditions, our backs have become broader and our skin thicker. "Not possible” is never an option. Otherwise we´d be out of work.

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Anthony Tomety

Anthony Tomety is a Ghanian production designer working in Africa as well as the United States. Last year Anthony won the Achievement in Production Design award at the African Movie Academy Awards for Leila Dzansi’s Northern Affair.

I never have considered myself an African or Ghanaian designer. I am a Designer regardless of where I come from and where I practice. Ghanaian culture is hard to define because of its diversity - there is no one culture that defines the whole country: the people in the Northern parts are predominately Muslims where as the southerners are mostly Christians; Costume also differs from region to region and some of the clothes have pattern with symbols that are meaningful to their culture and are used on different occasions. 

Depending on which locale or area where a setting is being represented I try to infuse a bit of their culture into my design so as to make it more believable. I personally always have certain African/Ghanaian art form, paintings and sculpture that I like to use as set deco elements to represent the African/Ghanaian theme as a whole. For me that gives one an Identity. Sometimes I throw in the National flag and its colours discreetly. But again these sculpture and arts have meanings and names and so I try to keep in balance the use in order not to offend any cultural group/area where the art work would have emanated from when in use on a show.  

My attitude as a Designer from African/Ghana compared to the attitude of other foreign designers that I have met hasn't been that different. I would rather say the technique and approach to getting some of the things done is what has been different. This is due to the fact that budget-wise most shows have budgets constraints and it doesn't allow me access certain techniques and materials I would want to use. Sometimes I don’t even know some of these materials exist until I have met a foreign designer use and apply it.


Getting access to materials is a challenge. However, having done this job for quite a while, I pretty much have an idea where to go: I’ve often found myself in downtown local markets where handmade artifacts are found (a place you all need to see by the way); There is also the timber market where you can find all the various kind of processed wood. I go to antique shops, Theatre companies, street hawkers and vendors and even junk yards for other items that I may need. Sometimes I borrow and rent from friends and relatives. There are no prop houses, which is why my  team and I usually build some props from scratch.


With all this said, I am a big believer and work with the belief that everything is possible. I enjoy the process even though it can be stressful and demanding sometimes.  


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Valeria Costa

Valeria Costa is a Brazilian production designer and art director working in film, TV and commercials. Her credits include “Rio I Love You,“ “Bald Mountain“ and “The Clown.“

I’ve always loved, and considered most important in every design job, thinking freely while developing an initial idea. Even if the process turns out different than the director’s expectations, “Brainstorming” is vital for me and gives me energy for the entire project.


Then I start thinking about the resources and labor to help me realize my design. In Brazil, the film industry is very small. We don’t have large collections of period furniture or props, for example, and our labor force is not necessarily “specialized” in that kind of work. But we do have an incredible professional we call "propmaker”, who makes objects for us - from gigantic sculptures to tiny prototypes. The propmaker works with any kind of material - resin, fiberglass, metal, rubber, wood, paint, paper, fabric and whatever else the imagination permits. The propmaker works often not only in the film world, but also in theater and the carnival, and therefore has a very diverse skill set! With my propmaker and my construction manager, I experiment in fabrication. Often, fabricating a piece of furniture ends up costing the same for me as renting it. Also, finding and renting the perfect piece isn’t easy… I often transform pieces I find to get closer to my design ideas - I dye fabric, paint furniture, make lamps out of antique pieces found in markets… That’s my way of designing and executing my designs.


In conclusion, I believe that we are all, as individuals and professionals, an accumulation of our combined experiences, the conditions in which we live and our habits and beliefs. My work style or “language“ is full of experimentation and improvisation, which are very strong features of my culture. As in music, as in cooking, dance and the visual arts, the “Brazilian way“ permeates our identity so intensely that it's hard to distinguish our personality without it.

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Grant Major

Grant Major is an Academy Award winning designer whose films include the "Lord of The Rings Trilogy", "Whale Rider" and "Angel at My Table" among others. He holds an honorary Doctorate of Arts and Design from Auckland University of Technology and was bestowed the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to the New Zealand Film industry.

I am a New Zealand Production Designer. I take my trade and skills to the world but call Aotearoa (as named  by our original Maori inhabitants) my home. It’s a unique place shaped by relative isolation, vivid land and seascapes, quirky flora and fauna. It’s a bonsai country, a microcosm with the same values, politics and systems as most western nations- only smaller!


And so it is with our film and television industry which against the odds has become noticed and celebrated, we like to think of ourselves as more than just a location destination and it was the advent of LOTR that changed this for many of us. Previously foreign Productions would bring their own DP’s, Designers and Costume Designers to the country but now this is rare. We all got a leg up with Peter Jackson’s success but there are many other home-grown Directors who have helped shape the local industry: Jane Campion, Lee Tamahori, Vincent Ward and Niki Caro and DP’s Michael Seresin and Alun Bollinger. Not too many Designers have exported their wares but Phil Ivey, the designer of ‘District Nine’ and ‘Elysium’, Dan Hennah of ‘The Hobbit’ and Art Director Kim Sinclair of ‘Avatar’ are exceptions.


Personally it was a surprise having spent most of my design career in such a small and far away place that my skills were on a par with those I worked with internationally. Having said this it’s important for NZ’rs to bring back skills from overseas otherwise we will become insular and be left behind. National characteristics have helped shape my carrier; New Zealanders are travellers, experiential adventurers with an independent can-do and do-it-yourself attitude. You’ll find us in most international film communities, coming from a boutique country means that we export a certain boutique quality to the world. Kia Kaha.

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